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The Essential Command

V'etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

One of the highlights of Parshat Va'etchanan is the repetition of the Ten Commandments. In vivid detail, Moses recalls the scene as the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai. Moses also describes this monumental event later in the Torah, saying, "God came from Sinai, having shone on them from Seir, having appeared from Mount Paran..." (Deut. 33:2). According to Rashi (Avodah Zara 2b), Seir is a location associated with Esav, whereas Mount Paran is associated with Yishmael.

We know that God first offered the Torah to the other nations of the world before He gave it to the Jewish people. Each nation wanted to know the contents of the Torah before accepting it. When the nation of Esav discovered that the Torah contained the commandment "You shall not murder," they refused to accept it. Similarly, the nation of Yishmael did not want to accept the Torah once they heard the commandment, "You shall not steal."

It seems odd that the nations refused to accept the Torah based on these basic restrictions. The seven Noachide laws - that every nation must uphold as universal law - include the prohibitions against murder and theft. What made the acceptance of Torah any different? Why would the nations refuse to do something so easy - that in fact they were already doing?

The commentator Ohr Gedaliyahu suggests an explanation based on the purpose of mitzvot. According to his view, the Ten Commandments are intended to sanctify us to such a degree that the mitzvot become part of our basic nature. In other words, through performing the mitzvot, we become so attached to God, and so aware of Him in our thought, speech, and action, that our very essence changes.

We see a support to this in the Mechilta (Parshat Yitro, citing Rebbe Akiva), which states that the Jewish people answered "hein" (yes) when they were informed of the prohibitions in the Ten Commandments. Instead of responding, "No, we won't murder," they replied, "YES, we won't murder." What is the significance of a positive response to a "thou shalt not" command?

According to the Ohr Gedaliyahu, this positive response hints to a transformation that the Jewish people underwent when they received the Torah at Mount Sinai. When they heard the command, "You shall not murder," they became filled with such love for each other that it was impossible for them to even entertain the idea of harming another person. In other words, this "thou shall not" command brought them to a level of connection with God that their very essence changed.

Based on this idea, we can understand why the nations of the world refused to accept the Torah. Previously, the nations with a proclivity toward murder had refrained because it was against the Noachide Laws. The Torah was altogether different. It was not a reiteration of universal law, but rather an expectation of positive change. The nations refused to accept this offer. Sometimes it is easier to hold on to our pockets of darkness and negative baggage than to attempt to make positive changes in our lives. The Jewish people were the only ones who were willing to transform themselves in order to fulfill the Torah.


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This idea will help us gain an insight into another highlight of the parsha: the Shema. Our intention when reciting "Shema Yisrael" should be that we are willing to give up our life for God if the situation requires (Sefer HaChinuch, mitzvah 417). Where do we find a hint to this idea in the words of the Shema?

According to the Slonimer Rebbe, the word "echad" (one) carries the same implication as the verse "Ein od mil'vado" - There is nothing besides Him (Deut. 4:35). Nothing exists outside of God. Therefore, by working on ourselves to grow ever closer to Him, it is as though we have already given up our life. Our whole life is totally given over to God.

This also helps us understand why, in Parshat Shoftim, the officers of the Jewish army begin their pre-battle talk to the soldiers by telling them, "Shema Yisrael! You are going out to war against your enemies" (Deut 20:3). According to the Talmud (Sotah 42a), the officers' phrasing implies that, even if the soldiers have only the merit of saying the Shema, that is reason enough for God to protect them. This makes sense according to the reasoning of the Slonimer Rebbe. If a soldier says Shema properly, and connects to God with his whole life, of course he will be victorious, because he will have aligned himself as much as possible with the unlimited power of God: the only force that exists.

We therefore learn from both the Shema and the Ten Commandments the importance of having a close connection to God. But how do we achieve this attachment? Connection to God grows out of loving Him. We see this on a practical level - since, when we love someone, we want to be with that person every possible minute. The Torah even commands us to love God (Deut. 6:5). Yet how can we be commanded to feel an emotion?

The Slonimer Rebbe suggests that, rather than being commanded to love God, we are commanded to do things that bring us to love God. One of these is to study Torah (Deut. 6:6). Once we start studying Torah and doing mitzvot, it is much more natural for us to begin feeling love for God.

May we soon see the day when, in the merit of this connection to the Divine, our true enemies will disappear, and we will enjoy an era of everlasting peace.

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